BNFL sackings to be widespread, says minister

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The Independent Online

Senior and middle managers at British Nuclear Fuels are facing the sack as part of a "swingeing" government review of the company.

Yesterday Helen Liddell, energy minister, said she wanted an overhaul of every level of management at Sellafield after disclosures that staff had falsified documents for reprocessed fuel. She told the Trade and Industry Select Committee that the appointment last month of a new chief executive at BNFL was just the start of a process of comprehensive change.

Five workers at Sellafield were fired after The Independent disclosed that data covering fuel destined for Japan had been falsified.

Mrs Liddell said it was not only low-ranking staff who would be replaced, pointing out that the incident was "a failure of management.

"I've made it obviously plain, we want no one hiding in any corners. I want to see a far- reaching and detailed review. BNFL can only benefit from having a light shone into every corner of the company. I have asked for a swingeing management review."

Mrs Liddell said the company would not be ready for part-privatisation unless its management culture changed fundamentally. Last week the Government said the sell-off of 49 per cent of shares had been shelved until late 2002. The minister said more than £2.3m had been spent on advisers ahead of the privatisation and more were likely to be appointed as pressure increased to investigate all aspects of its business.

Last week Martin O'Neill, the select committee chairman, said the BNFL accounts were far from transparent and called for urgent action.

Mrs Liddell admitted its finances were "difficult to fathom" and confirmed that the actuaries Clark Lane and Peacock had been appointed to offer independent assessment of the company's finances. Mrs Liddell agreed that as part of the effort to regain customer confidence in BNFL, the company must be more open.

Mr O'Neill replied: "The worry was that Sellafield was sitting there, glowing in the dark, for reasons we were not very clear about."

But Mrs Liddell said the Government was committed to the future of the company and that reprocessing would remain a key part of its activities, despite objections from environmentalists. Britain would oppose moves by Ireland and Denmark this summer to close Sellafield and the DTI in particular would battle on behalf of the firm abroad. Mrs Liddell said: "It's possible to talk down a company. Negative publicity about BNFL over the past few weeks, some of which has been excessive, can have a destabilising effect on a company."

The Government had not changed its view on BNFL continuing with reprocessing, which promised £12bn of business for the company in the coming years, she said.

"We have a centre of excellence in science and engineering. We have to extend that to management, as well as never losing sight of safety and environment matters," the minister added. Mrs Liddell refused to comment on speculation that the Government was backing off from giving permission for a new Mox (mixed oxide) plant at Sellafield. The decision was John Prescott's as Secretary of State for the Environment and she did not know when an announcement was due.